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Ottawa police arson unit probes apartment fire allegation in heat of anti-mandate protest

A person was also seen on security footage taping the door shut as a fire was lit.

Police are investigating what appears to be an attempt to start a fire in the lobby of a downtown Ottawa apartment building, where tenants say they have been besieged by anti-vaccine mandate protesters raging in the national capital for more than a week.

Tenants of 225 Lisgar St. woke up on Sunday, February 6 to the news of an alleged arson attempt on their building, which was caught on camera by the building's security system.

In footage taken from resident Matías Munoz, two individuals are seen entering the apartment building in the early morning hours.

The individuals are seen starting a fire by lighting fire starter bricks in the lobby. Further footage showed one of the two suspects taping the doors of the apartment building shut.

"I woke up and a friend of mine in the building texted and asked if I'd seen what happened in the lobby, we all met there and the building manager let us see the footage," he told CityNews.

Munoz said that when he came downstairs Sunday morning, he saw the carpet and floor were charred and that there were blackened fire-starter bricks strewn across the lobby.

The building manager showed him surveillance video, which he said appears to show two men light a package of the bricks in the lobby and then securing the front door handles together before leaving through the side door.

"It was terrifying, Munoz recalled. "A tenant walked in the side door and saw them, she asked what they were doing and they replied that they were aligned with the convoy protests, she quickly went into the elevator."

The video also shows a different man entering the building to put the fire out a short while later, he said in an interview. 

If the passerby hadn't happened upon the scene, Munoz fears the situation "could have been much much worse."

There are more than 100 units in the building, he said and added that he can only imagine what would have happened if the fire had caught the wood panel walls nearby. 

The building is just seven blocks south of Parliament Hill, and some residents said they were already at their wits' end with the constant noise from honking and fireworks at night, road blockages, reports of broken windows, and harassment on the streets.

"On top of all that, somebody trying to do something as insidious as taping the door shut so people can't leave if there's a fire in the main lobby — it's terror, is what it is," Munoz said.

The fire came after a particularly rough Saturday night for the residents of the building and the protesters camped below, Munoz said. 

“It sounded like a war zone out there,” he said. 

Mary Huang, president of the Centretown Community Association, was taken aback by the news, though she said she has heard stories from other community members of break-in attempts throughout the weekend.

“Centretown has a lot of seniors, and residents with mobility issues,” said Huang. “Centretown is a very accessible neighbourhood, though community members and residents are saying they’re terrified to leave their homes.”

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson brought the investigation up as part of a special council meeting to address the ongoing demonstrations on Monday.

He said the "horrific story" clearly demonstrates "the malicious intent of these protesters occupying our city."

The Ottawa Police Service Arson Unit is investigating. In a statement, officers said the fire caused minor damage but "thankfully no injuries occurred."  It did, however, say they are looking for the public’s help in identifying two individuals as persons of interest in the investigation. The statement also did not mention the protest.

"It’s believed that one or more persons entered the building and started a fire using undisclosed materials," stated the release on Monday, February 7.

Inially, police reported that they hadn't received a call regarding the incident, but upon further checking, were able to confirm through a statement:

"Upon further review, we have located a call for service regarding this incident. The Ottawa Police Service Arson unit is currently investigating this event and we cannot provide any further details at this time as the investigation is ongoing. We ask anyone with information to please call the Ottawa Police Arson unit at ext 4587 or 3771 or leave an email at arson@ottawapolice.ca."

Several residents in the building reported some kind of confrontation between the tenants and the demonstrators in the early morning hours. Some described people yelling down at the protesters from their windows. 

One of the tenants, James Geling, said Monday there had been a number of confrontations between residents in the building and protesters, including one shortly before the fire was set. 

He said that one started when a protester refused to stop honking around 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, which led to an argument.

"People in this building are so fed up," he said while standing in the lobby of the building.

"It feels lawless downtown. It feels like you can get away with anything."

Geling, who is a chef, said he came upon a couple of people in the lobby late Sunday night after walking his dogs. The people were shooting videos claiming the fire wasn't real, or that it was being blown out of proportion.

Munoz had posted about the incident on Twitter Sunday evening.

Geling called the fire a "silly attempt," though he admitted the building "doesn't feel safe." He said he is worried that news of the attempted arson will make the building even more of a target.

Residents of the building said the front doors do not lock. The owner of the building was not immediately available for comment Monday.

Christina Braithwaite said she has lived in the apartment next to the elevators since September. Her apartment is on the first floor and she said she has sometimes seen a woman sleeping in the hallways. 

She says she slept through the incident on Sunday morning when the two people captured on video walked past her door. She said she is unsettled by what happened. 

"I didn't sleep much last night," she said, later adding: "I'm glad (the person who lit the fire) didn't know what he was doing."

Braithwaite says her friends have started joking that she must have a "guardian angel," as her previous apartment across the river in Gatineau, Que., was hit by a tornado in 2018 while she was away.

She says she doesn't regret moving to her current place but adds: "If I hear another truck horn …"

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